Mike Ayers

Wofford football coach Mike Ayers is retiring after 30 years in coaching. Provided/Trent Brock/Wofford Athletics

At age 68, Mike Ayers is not too old to put on a karategi - the traditional karate uniform - and mix it up in the dojo.

"I taught a class last spring," said Ayers, Wofford's football coach and a black belt in karate. "It's a stress-reliever."

Ayers, in his 29th season at Wofford, has had reason to blow off steam in recent years. In the 11 seasons from 2002-2012, the dean of college football coaches in South Carolina and longtime Citadel nemesis led his squad to four Southern Conference titles, six FCS playoff appearances and nine top three finishes in the league, competing head-to-head with former SoCon powers Georgia Southern and Appalachian State.

When those two schools left the SoCon in 2013 for the FBS Sun Belt Conference, the Terriers seemed poised fill the power vacuum in the SoCon. Instead, it's been Chattanooga (three straight titles) and now The Citadel (the 2015 co-champ) who have stepped up.

As Wofford prepares to take on the sixth-ranked Bulldogs at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Gibbs Stadium, the Terriers have finished no better than fourth in the SoCon the last three seasons. At 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the league, Wofford needs a win against The Citadel to stay relevant in this year's SoCon title chase.

"It's been frustrating, to say the least," said Ayers, who has a record of 192-133-1 in 29 seasons at Wofford, and 203-154-2 in 32 years overall. "It hasn't been because we haven't worked hard enough, and it's not because we don't have the players.

"I think it's been a situation where, in a lot of cases, we haven't been able to get it done as far as coaching goes, getting our guys to execute at a high level. It's been difficult with injuries, too, where you lose some guys and all of the sudden you have a different dynamic with your team. Young guys are forced to grow up in a hurry."

'Football saved his life'

It's not like the Terriers have fallen off a cliff. They've gone 5-6, 6-5 and 5-6 over the last three seasons - not bad, but not nearly enough by Ayers' standards.

"It's been interesting, to say the least," Ayers said. "You want to do everything you can as a coach to give guys the opportunity to be successful. But some things, quite frankly, are out of your control. A knee injury, a shoulder, a situation like we had with Michael Roach earlier this year - how do you control those things. That's just the way the ball bounces."

Wofford is on its third quarterback this season, junior Brandon Goodson, after injuries to Evan Jacks and Brad Butler. Roach, a junior linebacker, almost died on the sideline on Sept. 1, when the Terriers opened the season at Tennessee Tech. His heart stopped, but he survived after being attended to by Wofford trainers, team doctors and the local EMS. Diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, he had a cardioverter defibrillator implanted in his heart and is now working with the Terriers as a student coach.

"It's a situation I pray I never have to go through again," Ayers said. "His heart actually stopped there on the boundary, and if it hadn't been for our trainers and doctors, and a heart doctor that was up in the stands ... When it was all said and done, they said if it happened anywhere else - in his room, driving in his car - he wouldn't have made it.

"Football saved his life, his mom made that statement, and we are blessed that he's on the field helping us."

'I don't like to lose'

Ayers has a long history of beating The Citadel, dating back to Wofford's days as an NAIA and NCAA Division II team. He owns victories over six different Citadel coaches, and the Terriers owned a 16-game win streak over the Bulldogs from 1999-2014, a skid that The Citadel didn't snap until last year's 39-12 win at Johnson Hagood Stadium. Still, the Bulldogs have not won at Wofford since 1998.

But Ayers always did it in a way that Citadel fans could respect, and his success with the triple-option offense is one reason that former Bulldogs coach Kevin Higgins turned to that scheme in 2010. Now, the Bulldogs - 15-4 over the last two seasons, with a SoCon title and FCS playoff victory last season - remind Ayers of his best Wofford teams.

"The big thing is, they know what they want to do," he said of the Bulldogs. "They know their identity, and all their kids have bought in. They are the complete team - excellent on defense, a good job on special teams and on offense, they are old school.

"Every game, you can tell what their game plan is - this is what we do, this is who we are, stop us. And nobody has done it yet."

When will Ayers himself stop? He has four grandchildren now, and says they lend a new perspective to life.

"The greatest gift you can get," he says. "When you have your own children, life is going around so fast. You are trying to make it in the coaching ranks and provide for your family, and your own kids get short-changed. When you get grandkids, it's God giving you a do-over."

But the accomplished fisherman and sketch artist doesn't sound like he's ready to retire to the trout stream just yet.

"I don't know," he said when asked when he'll retire. "Every time I come to the office, I enjoy it, and I promise myself I'll do the best I can today for Wofford, for the kids and the staff. You want to understand that when you stop having fun, there's a reason, and the reason is probably you.

"I still love being around the kids, I love the X's and O'x, the strategy, and I love Saturdays and competing. And believe me, I don't like to lose."

Reach Jeff Hartsell at (843) 937-5596. Follow on Twitter @jeff_fromthepc

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